WASHINGTON -- Adam Wainwright would have preferred kicking back a little Friday night, relaxing, thinking about how he planned to pitch against the Giants in the National League Championship Series opener.
Instead, Wainwright will be on the mound at Nationals Park in Game 5 of the NL Division Series with the Cardinals' season on the line. And he's not afraid to admit that a part of him doesn't mind that St. Louis failed to clinch Thursday night (7:30 p.m. CT on TBS).
"Sure, I wish we had won. But this is every pitcher's dream," Wainwright said after Jayson Werth's walk-off homer in Game 4. "It's every competitor's dream to go into huge moments like this. So I look forward to the challenge."
It means even more to Wainwright since he was little more than a cheerleader a year ago, rehabbing from reconstructive elbow surgery, when the Cards won the World Series.
"The postseason is so special anyway," Wainwright explained. "And this team has battled through so much this year and fought so hard just to get into the postseason. It really can't be understated how special that is to our team, and me in particular. I feel very blessed that I get to go out and compete tomorrow."
Key stat: Wainwright surrendered just one run and struck out 10 over 5 2/3 innings in Game 1
Key stat: Gonzalez walked a career-high seven in Game 1, but allowed only two runs over five innings
At Nationals Park
2012: 1 GS, 0-1, 20.25 ERA Career: 3 GS, 1-2, 7.24 ERA
2012: 14 GS, 9-4, 2.38 ERA Career: 14 GS, 9-4, 2.38 ERA
Against this opponent (regular season)
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 7.27 ERA Career: 10 G, 8 GS, 4-3, 3.60 ERA
2012: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Loves to face: Danny Espinosa: 1-for-7 Hates to face Ian Desmond: 5-for-11, RBI
Loves to face: Carlos Beltran: 0-for-8 Hates to face: Jon Jay: 2-for-4, RBI
Why he'll win: Wainwright owns a 0.77 postseason ERA over 23 1/3 innings
Why he'll win: Gonzalez was arguably the best pitcher in the National League this season
Pitcher beware: Wainwright went 4-7 in 15 regular-season road starts this year
Pitcher beware: Gonzalez struggled with command in Game 1
Bottom line: Wainwright is postseason tested and looked sharp in Game 1
Bottom line: Gonzalez needs to regain his regular-season form after a shaky postseason debut
Before he started the NLDS opener, Wainwright talked like a man who was just happy to be there.
That was then. Now it all comes down to one game. If the Cardinals win, they'll advance to the NLCS against the Giants. If they lose, they'll be left to wonder what went wrong after two blowout wins gave them a lead of 2-1 in the best-of-five series.
In Game 1, Wainwright became the first Cards pitcher to strike out 10 batters in a postseason game since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in 1968. Wainwright held the Nationals to one run on six hits and walked three.
Wainwright also needed 100 pitches to get through his 5 2/3 innings in a game the Nats came back to win with a rally in the eighth.
That game was played in late-afternoon shadows that confounded hitters on both teams. Also, nine of Wainwright's 10 strikeouts came on curveballs, so it will be interesting to see if the Washington lineup can make an adjustment.
"It was just a good pitch for me," Wainwright said after the game. "I wouldn't say the other ones were all bad, [but] that's kind of who I am. I have a good curveball, and there are times when I overuse it. I felt like my fastball command was not all there, so you make adjustments."
"That the best I've seen Adam since before his [surgery]," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who struck out twice, said. "Not that he wasn't good the last couple times. We faced him two times late in the year, so a lot of people were kind of saying he was getting tired. But that right there, that was the curveball he had before."
Wainwright left the game with runners on first and second and two outs in the sixth inning and the Cardinals up by one. Lance Lynn came in to strike out Werth for what was a crucial out.
"I thought he fought and had a little bit of trouble early on making his pitches with his fastball, seemed like he wasn't as fine as when he's having his best game," manager Mike Matheny said. "His breaking ball really bailed him out and kept them off balance. He made pitches when he had to and kept us in the game."
Cards starters Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse have largely shut down the Nats in the past two games, but Wainwright laughed when asked if there was anything he could learn from that.
"Here's what I take from that: Hitting a baseball is real hard," Wainwright said. "It's the hardest thing in sports. And as a pitcher, if you go out there and make your pitches, throw it where you want to and keep them off balance, you're going to probably be in pretty good shape. And that's what I'm going to try to do."
Wainwright did it before. The Cardinals are counting on him to do it again.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.